Rochdale wrap – Oxford United 1 Rochdale 0

All living things are basically commonly found elements organised in an unfathomably complicated way. If you were to try to create something living in a laboratory from its core elements the closest you might get to creating something that actually lives is a smelly sludge. Scientists know much more than you, but compared to the totality of knowledge, they don’t know very much.
Following a successful transfer window in which the promotion squad from last year was radically re-modelled, it feels like we have the core elements we need to be a pretty decent League 1 side, but it doesn’t yet feel like it has wholly combined to create the living, breathing side Michael Appleton envisages.
Kemar Roofe’s return as guest of honour at half-time against Rochdale was a telling reminder of what might be missing. The first 45 minutes seemed typical of all our home games this season; we matched our opponents but they looked more threatening.
The difference was pace, our lack of it concentrated the midfield meaning that balls went astray because there was no time to pick a pass and when there was, it had to be absolutely perfect to weave its way through crowds of players. What Rochdale did, and we didn’t do, was break with speed at a moment’s notice. This ability to shift gears is the most significant difference between League 2 and 1 so far.
Marvin Johnson might just be the key component, the DNA, we need to bring the everything together and fire us into life. He has pace, which is essential, although he really only showed it in the last minutes, but his presence was, in some ways, more important.
The by-product is that opposing defenders sit just slightly deeper to try and cope with his threat. That gives a fraction more space in midfield which should help Lundstram’s passing, allow Sercombe to run from deep and give the likes of Rothwell, as well as Roberts and Crowley, the space to move the ball. Rothwell was keen to make an impact, but he had to attack from deep in the first half and just ended up in traffic, second half he had space to dribble into putting Rochdale more not the back foot.
The new rules around loans mean that there is much more pressure on teams to get themselves together in the summer transfer window – there’s no more tweaking now until January. So all the components are now in place, time to bring them to life. We can ease into that over the next few weeks. Who’s next?


The gargatuan massiveness of large

There was a general consensus that Saturday’s game was massive, bigger than last week’s massive game and bigger than the massive game we played the week before. Perhaps even more massive than any game we’ve ever played.

I blame Professor Brian Cox. In the past, size has been a relative and generally comprehensible concept. At school I was genuinely proud to be one of the tallest in my class. I wasn’t as tall as Mark Drayton, a freakish beanpole with tight ginger curls and pre-hipster NHS glasses who would be used by our useless house rugby team as a battering ram to flatten our more skilful opponents, but I wasn’t one of those teeny weeny whippet types whose parents pestered their local GP to put them onto some kind of growth hormone programme. I was relatively tall, which I liked.

I can comprehend things that are smaller than and larger than a bus, for example. I don’t mean that as a boast, I just can. When I saw the Alpine monster The Eiger when on holiday with my parents once, I generally got the principle that there were few things bigger than a mountain, although we then saw Mount Blanc and I came to realise that there were bigger mountains.

Then Professor Brian Cox came on the scene like one of those school teachers with an acoustic guitar and a working knowledge of Oasis b-sides. The type that everyone thinks is dead cool until the rumours about their biological practices with sixth form girls become intolerable. Cox introduced a whole new scale of massiveness with his slightly creepy endless wonderment at the universe and its many mysteries and dimensions. Before him, of course, was Stephen Hawkins, but he didn’t have the haircut or post-Britpop button-up military style coat. It’s Cox that really shoulders the blame here.

Cox, if you didn’t know, used to play keyboard for D:Ream, the unloved disappointment from the Acid House family. He adopts a peculiar sense of childlike wonder about the world, which you’d hope, as a highly educated man, he’d have started to get to grips with. He’s wanton to saying, in his dreamy Mancunian schtick, ‘Imagine something absolutely huge; well the universe is even big than that, but then, imagine, if there was something even more massive.’ before staring out into the middle distance of the Nevada desert as the sun sets a massive number of miles away.

The massiveness of our games have been getting progressively large for over a decade. Not a week goes by without someone reminding us just how massive each upcoming game is. I remember sitting in the car park before a game against Darlington in the pre-Conference days with Nick Harris growling about how massive the next 90 minutes would be. We were in a pit of apathy, I looked out of my windscreen at the Oxford Mail stand 10 minutes before kick-off, I’d just arrived and driven straight in. If it was a massive game, then it seemed that the fans had become overridden by the angst of it all and simply not been able to step over the threshold of their front door.

The size of Saturday’s game could not be comprehended by merely comparing it to something big. I tried compose an ironic tweet about the comparative scale of the game, but couldn’t actually imagine something large enough to compare it to. I felt the overwhelming urge to compare it to a theoretical algebraic equation. The game had acquired a size of multidimensional proportions.

The internet doesn’t help, of course, between us we manage to crowd source the consequences of such a game to the point where, like the human genome project or the recipe for Coca Cola, it can no longer be owned by one person alone. The analysis starts in a reasonably neutral way with someone noticing that a team has a particularly high number of away games coming up or a lot of games against teams at the bottom. Before long someone will suggest that Southend’s form is reliant on their left back whose loan move is coming to an end, while someone else will make comment on Newport’s poor pitch and the likely impact that might have on form and points. Then someone will talk about a planning application that’s been put in by Plymouth for an extension to their club shop that has prevented them from signing someone.

Suddenly we’re confronted by our own mortality; that we are mere dots on humanity, controlling nothing, at the mercy of everything. Mass panic ensues, and each game acquires dimensions and depth of a scale whose power we can only sit and gape at in awe. No longer are we merely confronting an opponent; eleven men with a vague connection to a market town in Greater Manchester, we are confronting our own vulnerabilities.

The helplessness of being lone vessels tossed in an angry stormy sea; the anxiety is almost too much to bear.

Except, when you think about it, there is only one must-win game a season; the game that makes it mathematically possible or impossible to achieve whatever it is you’re ultimately trying to do. Most of those you can discount as mere confirmations of a trend that has been evident for months. Occasionally there are games which genuinely define the fine line between success or failure – Leyton Orient in 2006, Exeter in 2007, Rushden in 2010 and then York at Wembley. In the last decade those have been the only genuine must-win games we’ve had.

Saturday’s result didn’t kill the season; it didn’t even dent it very much. We remain, as we did at 2.59pm on Saturday, in with an outside shout of automatic promotion and a very good chance of the play-offs. The game appears to have put paid to Mickey Lewis’ prospects of landing the management job permanently. Ian Lenagan claimed after the game to be over 50% through the recruitment process, which presumably means that Lewis isn’t on the short-list, unless he’s offering him the job in a particularly long winded and opaque way using a series of cryptic clues dotted around the Kassam Stadium. Lewis is a good bloke and a decent coach, but he doesn’t have the pig headedness or tactical thinking to be a manager.

When will we confront our destiny? Not yet, but soon. As the games in hand held by others begin to unwind in the next few weeks we’ll get a better picture of whether we’re going for an automatic position or the play-offs. I suspect that we’ll see ourselves comfortably within the play-offs, in which case destiny will come in the post-season. However, given the erratic nature of everyone’s form in this division, we may still hold aspirations of an automatic slot come May; and then destiny could well lie in the last game of the season at Chris Wilder’s Northampton.

Existentialism and cheap Nike sportswear, a discussion

Saturday’s draw with Rochdale may have been frustrating, but our toil paled into insignificance against the personal battle going on in my head about my mortality. Mortality and official club merchandise.

On Friday I was driving to work and saw a blonde woman walking her dog. From the back she reminded me of someone I know, so I glanced around to see her face. She was probably 20 years older than she looked from behind. It was about 8.45 and she was walking her dog in the sunshine, presumably she wasn’t going to work. I thought what a nice day she had ahead of her and that she was probably very happy with her life.

Then I thought; she was in mid-forties, she looked very respectable. But 20 years ago – not that long ago – she might have been a raver, she may listen to original Seattle grunge. She is no longer young, but once she was. Perhaps she wasn’t so happy about that. It dawned on me that I’ve always subconsciously thought of myself as a young person who has caught up with people who were always adults. As a result, I’ve always thought other people were comfortable with their adulthood. But it dawned on me that all adults are, like me, just grown up children.

Earlier this week I sat in a coffee shop and three girls, probably about 16-18, came and sat at the table next to me. To me, they’re young people in touch with popular culture. And so am I. To them, I am a middle aged man, and, should I try to engage with anything approaching peer-to-peer discussion, they would think me a bit creepy.

On Saturday I parked at the top car park in order to peruse, and perhaps buy, a new home shirt. Every season I buy myself a new shirt, I’m a completist so I want a full collection. It goes back to my university days, at university you’re expected to be an individual, but you’re actually subservient to a student cliche; the home shirt was a way of representing your home town. Last year, the large shirt was self-consciously clingy on me, I bought a XL, it was a blow, even though it was too big. The joy of buying a shirt became a reminder of my slow drift to middle-age. 

The ritual has become tiring, I’m lucky enough to be able to afford a new shirt each season nowadays. Its not a treat like it was, its a routine. Moreover, I don’t actually like this season’s new shirt, it’s too similar to last year and the sponsor is decidedly naff. I looked at it close-up and saw little mistakes in the stitching, convincing myself that it was badly made. But really I was wrestling with a dilemma; have I become too old to buy a home shirt?  

I chewed over this for the whole game. New shirts eventually become classic old shirts; they often need time to mature; the 2010 promotion shirt is already a classic, even the maligned 2011 shirt is becoming a cult classic – a subversive message. So perhaps I should buy one; it’ll complete the collection and in 10 years time it’ll be kind of cool and obscure.

But I don’t like it; generally speaking a big block of yellow doesn’t work on an expanding girth, you shine like a beacon. Perhaps I could try the away shirt; which is much nicer, but it’ll be breaking the sequence. There’s something very knowing about an away shirt. A very secret language we share with fans of other Football League clubs; when you see a Football League away shirt in Tesco, you’re communicating that you’re part of the counterculture. The further away from home you see the shirt (I once saw that fuzzy red away shirt from the 90s being worn in a obscure village in Devon) the more underground you are.

But, is the problem that its a football shirt? Perhaps I’m just too old to be assimilating myself to those on the pitch. I’m only four years younger than Chris Wilder, a couple of years older than Kelvin Thomas. Perhaps my style should be more suited to the back room team. But the range of training merchandise is generic Nike gear you’d find in Sports Direct, its just got an Oxford badge on it. I quite like the tracksuit top, but it would benefit from a touch of yellow to make it ours, the Thermafit hoody, I like, and it’s practical for later in the season. But when does ‘classic’ simply become dull?

Perhaps I should go with something more subtle and stylish. A couple of years ago I saw Dr Neil Wilson at a game against Wimbledon. Dr Wilson is a pioneering children’s heart surgeon; the first surgeon to successfully do an open heart operation on a child under the age of 10. He’s a world expert, talks with a plumby accent and wears a bow tie by day. And there he was, buying a beer in the South Stand Upper with a classic yellow and navy bar scarf. He looked like a man who had got life in perspective whilst not losing his affinity to the club. 

At the other end of the spectrum, but no less perfect, there’s a bloke who I see around the Kassam occasionally, he’s probably in his 50s. He wears immaculate Dr Martens, jeans with turn-ups, braces and, in a subtle nod to the club, a yellow and blue checked shirt. He is totally in the skinhead tradition. Its a great look, he doesn’t let cheap sportswear spoil it, but nor does he lose his link to the club. Perhaps this is the way forward, a more subtle glance towards the club, whilst communicating that I am a multi-dimensional fully grown adult.
I’m still undecided, leave my youth behind and give up on the shirts, buy dull sportswear more in keeping with my age, or go for something else completely different? This occupies my thoughts more than our inability to keep a clean sheet at the moment.